The Haunted Palace , 1963, directed by Roger Corman. Vincent Price, Debra Paget, Lon Chaney Jr., Frank Maxwell, Leo Gordon, Elisha Cook, Cathie Merchant.

Synopsis: Charles Dexter Ward has come to the sleepy little town of Arkham to claim his inheritance, a crumbling palace that was transported to the new world by his ancestor, Joseph Curwen. The palace is shunned by the people of Arkham, for Curwen was a warlock intent on bringing the Elder Gods back to earth. They burned him alive before he could bring this to pass, but not before cursing the townspeople and their descendants. Ever since, the townspeople have suffered. They begat generation after generation of defective children, and the healthy folk live in fear that Curwen will return. Ward doesn't believe a word of this, and with his wife, takes up residence in the palace. The palace's caretaker slowly reveals to Ward the true history of the palace, and in so doing, invites the malevolent spirit of Curwen to inhabit his descendant's body...

Bait and Switch: Roger Corman produced so many movies loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe in such a short amount of time--he made the first in 1960 and the last in 1964, comprising eight pictures in total--that it's understandable that he might like a break from them. Hence, when presented with the opportunity to make something else, the took it. One of those something elses was H. P. Lovecraft's "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," a story adapted with fair results by Charles Beaumont. As with the Poe pictures, the resulting film has only a cursory acquaintance with its source material and has everything to do with Corman's own Freudian interpretation of the genre, and as such it is largely of a piece with the Poe pictures--so much so that AIP got cold feet about the bankability of H. P. Lovecraft (subsequent history shows that this failure of nerve was unfounded, but that's another matter...). The film was so close to the Poe films that they appended a Poe title to the film--The Haunted Palace--and insisted on a recitation of Poe's poem at the film's conclusion. So the film ends up as a hybrid. For some reason, this strikes me as appropriate, given the admiration Lovecraft felt for Poe, and given the obsession with monstrous crossbreeds in Lovecraft's fiction.

Formula: By this time, Corman was getting very good at Poe and at gothic horror in general. The formula was in place by 1963, and with this picture, he began to experiment. This is more overtly a monster movie than the other Poe pictures--thanks to Lovecraft's influence, naturally--but it's also a film that shows more of the influence of Mario Bava's Italian gothics, Corman having previously given Barbara Steele her second big horror role after her star-making turn in Bava's Black Sunday. In fact, whether Corman intended this or not, this film's plot and resolution are dead ringers for Black Sunday. In this film, he also begins to borrow Bava's color experiments as well. The green cast given to the villains of the piece are one example of this, as is the higher contrast of the film stock itself. Corman claims that he wanted to give this film a different "look" than the Poe pictures, and so he has. Up to a point. Like the previous installments, Corman has filmed everything on a soundstage--he claims that this is a means of replicating the unconscious mind; the obviously fake landscapes and buildings are intended to act as a kind of dreamscape rather than as a literal setting. Daniel Haller had accumulated quite a bit of scenery by this time, left over from the previous Poe films. To his credit, he is able to dress his sets so that they don't specifically suggest any of the previous films. This movie ends, as several of Corman's Poe pictures end, with a big fire, giving Corman the chance to re-use the burning barn footage he shot for The Fall of the House of Usher. In spite of all that, The Haunted Palace does manage a slightly different feel than the other Poe films, though its necrophilic obsessions are all of a piece with the rest of them.

Although Corman's ambitions with the Poe pictures continued to expand (reaching their peak in The Masque of the Red Death, a year after this film), his savvy as a commercial filmmaker lead him to cast this film with absolutely drop-dead gorgeous women, starting with leading lady Debra Paget, who play's Charles Dexter Ward's wife. Corman accidentally creates a madonna/whore dichotomy by casting Cathie Merchant as Joseph Curwen's mistress. Merchant is an actress with features so similar to Paget that they serve as doppelgangers in the film. This is in stark contrast to the film's lead actors, all of whom were over fifty at the time. While Hammer films in England were recycling all of the Universal monsters in their gothics, Corman was recycling all of the actors from the thirties horror boom. This film makes good use of Lon Chaney, Jr. And, of course, Vincent Price is ubiquitous in these films, and is here given the chance to wrap his voice around Lovecraft's many unpronounceable names.

The Spider's Web: The Haunted Palace should be singled out for one more item. It has a particularly evocative credit sequence. Most of the Poe films have elaborate title sequences, but this one gets props as the best of them. We see a spider spinning its web for most of the credits, and by the end of them, it has snared a butterfly. This sequence was lifted whole for Paul Verhoeven's The Fourth Man two decades later.